Ever since I first started going to loud dance parties in college I’ve wished for an alternative. Sure, I love to dance, but I also like to be able to hear, and talk. At Cambridge, Fitzwilliam College set a new personal record for me. The music, played over enormous speakers in the same room where they held the genteel god-save-the-queen Formal Hall, was so loud that I could feel the infrasonic resonances of my chest cavity.
That’s about the time that I started dreaming of wireless headphone dance parties. If you gave everyone wireless headphones, playing the same music at the same time, everyone could dance together, listen to music at exactly the volume they personally preferred, and take off the headphones to have an intelligible conversation. You could even imagine running multiple audio tracks in parallel, synchronized but in different styles, so each person could choose a channel to their personal taste.
Algorithmically that would be hard, but never mind.
I heard rumors that such things had been tried … and then this fall I ran across a listing for a Silent Disco night run by Quiet Clubbing NYC. Turns out, it’s a real thing. On Saturday night, I finally got to try it myself, at a free outdoor event in Bryant Park.
The party had already started when we arrived. It was surreal. There was a mob of people dancing enthusiastically to no discernible rhythm, sort of singing bits of recognizable songs but no song in particular, wearing headphones that glowed in bright LED red, green, and blue.
We walked to the end of the very long line of people waiting for headphones. A staffer told us there were 300 people in line; I estimate 500 total.
When we got to the front of the line and put down our deposit, the staff explained how to use the headphones: volume knob on the right, power and channel selector on the left.
There are three channels, and three DJs broadcasting. The channel selector switch picks which one you hear … and also changes the color of your headphones to match. At any given time, if you get bored with your current station, you can switch and see if you like the others better … but you can’t keep it a secret. Conversely, you can look at your friends, and at strangers, to see what color is popular right now.
The effect is fascinating. Sometimes the crowd seems to flip all at once to a different color that’s playing a particularly beloved song. Dancing in a group, you can keep up with your friends, or try to lead everyone onto a new, better track. You have to move fast though … the DJs rarely play a song from start to finish.
The only thing missing from my long-ago dream was synchronization. Sure enough, without synchronization, dancing any closer than arms length while listening to different channels is a recipe for disaster. I saw it with my own eyes.
Better to suffer in silence*.
* I did not come up with this myself.